The Rock Art Engravings of the Coso Range

Archaeological Evidence for Coso Bighorn Sheep Hunting

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Locations and Context

Coso petroglyphs occur at optimally suited ambush and trap locations that allow for communal big game hunting (cf. Grant et al., 1968; Murphey, 1986; Thomas, 1976). The art is prominent in open-air, amphitheater-like settings. In contrast, rock art in more secluded contexts, hidden from public view, has often been interpreted as vision quest sites (cf. Greer, 1995 sensu “private ceremonial sites” versus “public ceremonial sites”). The private sites are where shamans produced imagery associated with altered states of consciousness. The Coso sites differ from these, being situated along well-used game trails in direct association with watering holes (natural tanks) in the steep walled canyon bottoms. Some glyphs are at gorge entrances next to hunting blinds. The largest groupings of rock drawings are in Petroglyph, Renegade, and Sheep Canyons (Figure 1). These are natural sheep “traps” (cul-de-sacs and hunting enclosures) where game could be driven past hidden hunters armed with atlatls and darts, spears, or bows and arrows. Glyphs are also found on stony promontories astride saddles between drainages. Smaller concentrations are located near springs.

Associated Archaeological Features

Hunting Blinds

Rock structures, interpreted as hunting blinds, are regular components of the Coso sheep trap complexes (Brook, 1980:Table 2; Grant et al., 1968). The blinds are just above the streambed so archers could fire weapons as sheep channeled past them (contra Keyser and Whitley, 2006). Some glyphs are directly on boulders forming the blinds. Several blinds have been recorded within Renegade Canyon, Upper Centennial Spring, and south Sugarloaf Mountain. I noted blinds within Sheep Canyon, Junction Ranch, and Parrish Gorge. Many are also on Coso Peak and Silver Peak in the pinyon zone above 5,500 feet in elevation.

Dummy Hunters

Dummy hunters are found along the canyon rims of the largest Coso galleries. These are not isolated features but rather multiple collections of stacked rock sculptures serving as figurative hunters (Figure 9). Such decoys were used by Native hunters in many areas of North America. Similar stone features are known in Nevada, associated with the Pahranagat petroglyphs (Heizer and Hester, 1974), where they are located just above the game trails and water sources ( 2006). Dummy hunters constructed of wood were used by the Cheyenne on the Plains to funnel buffalo into drive lanes (Coleman, 1996). These wooden sentinels were known as “dead men” since they directed the bison along a path to their death. The hunters of stone are known from several areas in the Coso Range. In Sheep and Upper Renegade Canyons there are large numbers (n = 30+) of these piled rock figures. These rock stacks are sometimes weathered and tumbled from age but many still stand from two to four feet tall. They are always situated on the north-facing, shaded portion of the drainage so that they manifest in silhouette from below.

Muir (1898:321-322) describes the communal hunting of bighorn and the use of such features:

Great numbers of Indians were . . . required. . . . (and) they were compelled . . . to build rows of dummy hunters out of stones, along the ridge-tops which they wished to prevent the sheep from crossing. And without discrediting thesagacity of the game, these dummies were found effective; for with a few live Indians moving about excitedly among them, they could hardly be distinguished at a little distance from men, by anyone not in on the secret. The whole ridgetop then seemed alive with archers.

The narrow defiles of the Coso Range were perfect for such communal drives. The many stone sentinels serve as contextual evidence for the intensive hunting exercises focused on communal sheep hunting.

Timing and Character of the Hunt

Fall is the only season when rams, ewes, lambs, and yearlings commingle (Geist and Petrocz, 1977). At other times ewes and rams are normally segregated. Aboriginal people were well aware of the highly predictable rutting season of the bighorn. During this season rams vie for top breeding rights. Headlong, thunderous clashes could be heard echoing in the canyons during dominance displays by competing males. This was when rams lose their “competitive edge” and are less wary. At this time human hunters and mountain lions would have preyed more successfully since rams were especially vulnerable. Many hunting forays must have occurred during this season given the concurrence of rams, ewes, and lambs depicted in some Coso drawings. Bighorn hunts were conducted in a variety of ways (Annell, 1969; McGuire and Hatoff, 1991; Stewart, 1941:367). The analog for the Coso pattern are communal hunts, surrounding sheep, driving them into enclosures or nets, guiding the sheep with fire and dogs, and running the sheep past hidden hunters (Stewart, 1942:242). Stewart notes that hunters would also occasionally make loud noises - pounding objects together to imitate the clash of rams in battle.


Rock basins (tinajas) are found throughout the Coso canyons where large concentrations of glyphs occur. These natural tanks, or literally “earthen jars,” are found along the floor of the petroglyph walled canyons in rock crevices that are deep and shaded. The basins often contain sand and trap water, slowing evaporation and holding water for many months. Thundershowers refill the basins and provide watering holes for bighorn that use specific tinajas, generation after generation, tethering the bands to this particular geography during their annual pilgrimages from highlands to valley floor.
Bradshaw Foundation - Introduction to Coso Rock Art
Dr. Alan P. Garfinkel - About the Author
Dr. Alan P. Garfinkel - Introduction to the Research Paper
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